Sharing the Environment: An interview with Dr. Nadine McHenry at Widener University

Posted by on September 06, 2012

Dr. Nadine McHenry, Associate Professor and Director of the Science Teaching Center at Widener University, spoke with PHENND this summer about intercultural communication, the intricacies of Skyping in other countries, and how to create a service-learning based science curriculum. Throughout her career Dr. McHenry has worked hard with and for youth and pre-service teachers in Chester, PA. She is a leading expert in the fields of environmental and science education and holds degrees and certifications in early childhood, elementary, and environmental education. She has worked as a teacher and teacher educator and was able to use her administrative skills to found and run Chester Charter School from 2000-2005. In her previous position at Neumann University, Dr. McHenry focused on the creation of “schoolyard habitats,” which allowed youth to explore the scientific world beyond the classroom. This work paved the way for her current efforts to develop programs that are focused on environmental education in the context of service-learning.

Currently, Dr. McHenry has been focused on a collaborative program with Widener Partnership Charter School (WPCS) entitled Sharing the Environment. This program connects K-7 students in Chester, PA with classrooms of students from Atwell’s Educational Institute in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago…

This project is the brainchild of a former student of Dr. McHenry’s, Ms. Zainab Hamidullah, a Trinidadian native who has taught in both the United States and Trinidad. She saw the possibility for enriching science curricula in both places through student and teacher exchange. As a former student of Dr. McHenry’s, Ms. Hamidullah reached out to Dr. McHenry in 2009 in an effort to create a program that linked her passion for service-learning and the environment. The program is now entering its third year and has sent two WPCS teachers to meet with Trinidadian teachers for a three day professional development session in the rainforest of Trinidad. Next year, the plan is to take both in- and pre-service teachers to Trinidad for professional development.

Q: How did you go about finding a partner school in Trinidad?

A: Ms. Hamidullah and I wanted to recreate some of the projects we did at Neumann, creating schoolyard labs in Trinidad. After initial outreach we ended up connecting with a private school, Atwell’s Education Institute, which is family-run. The teachers and administrators were very excited to take on this challenge and have been a strong partner throughout the program’s development.

Q: How do you think an exchange like this enhances learning for teachers and students?

A: The program started in part because wanted to foster a way for students to have deeper scientific understanding, not just learning what needs to be regurgitated on the day of a test. Through our program Sharing the Environment, students in the United States and Trinidad investigate themes related to their environment or a common scientific concept and then share it with their counterparts. Students share their findings via Skype or i-movie. This promotes both cultural exchange and understanding about the environment on a more global scale.

Teachers share lesson plans ahead of time, so that they can replicate the same lesson before exchanging information. For example, Atwell’s students investigated the amount of waste created by the celebration of Carnival in Trinidad and WPCS students investigated waste creation from the celebration of New Year’s Eve in New York City. This research created the venue for investigating both a scientific concept to research and a cultural exchange.

Q: What have you learned through the first three years of the program?

A: There have been many “adaptations” and changes throughout the first three years. Initially we had students skype by grade, and share about what they are learning. Skyping by grade level didn’t create the greatest connection between students because students weren’t necessarily interested in topics that they were not familiar with. We decided last year to connect them by topic. For example: 6th graders at WPCS studying fracking in Pennsylvania conversed conwith 3rd graders at Atwell’s on pesticides. Both groups of children investigated the effects of human actions on the quality of their water, air, and soil.

Q: You mentioned that students also view this as a “cultural exchange.”  Did you plan this explicitly?

A: We were actually surprised at the amount of cultural exchange that happened right away between the students. They were always asking each other about music, clothing, food, etc. and finding similarities and differences between their cultures. We’ve now adapted this as part of the program and we are trying to build in more historical and cultural learning in addition to science and environmental education.

Q: What unexpected challenges arose from this project?

A: Our students and teachers both had a little difficulty with accents. Both groups of students were intrigued by their counterparts’ accents. Efforts were made to help the children on both sides to enunciate more clearly and listen carefully when Skyping.

We also had technological issues with Skype. Sometimes the connection just wasn’t there, which was why we added i-movies t t o the learning exchange. We are also training the teachers in troubleshooting so that our chances of technological success increases.

Q: How are your college students involved? What have they done to help grow this project?

A: This year, Widener’s middle level teacher candidates will work with WPCS students using Earth Force – a problem solving, environmental service-learning pedagogy. It is hoped that a few of these undergraduates will have the opportunity to travel to Trinidad this summer (2013) and help to train the teachers there in this same approach. The goals of the Sharing the Environment Program remain focused on improving the professional development of teachers and to expand classrooms to encompass the global community.

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